Lee Sullivan: the community player
CARBONDALE – It’s two days before Lee Sullivan is about to appear in one of his biggest roles, yet Sullivan, an Aspenite who has become prominent in the valley’s theater world over the last few years, doesn’t seem, for the moment, especially absorbed with his character. Instead of focusing on his character – Artie Shaughnessy, the music-loving zookeeper in Thunder River Theatre’s production of John Guare’s black comedy, “The House of Blue Leaves” – Sullivan talks expansively, artfully, about the broader issues of theater: teamwork, purpose and fulfillment, connecting with an audience, how it can give an actor (or a director or lighting technician) grounding in issues and relationships. For example: “Theater is a lens where I can zero in on what are humanity’s weaknesses and strengths, and it exceeds all my own reference points.”
When Sullivan does gets around to a piece of dialogue from “The House of Blue Leaves,” it is, perhaps not surprisingly, lines from another character. “There’s a character, Billy Einhorn, who says, ‘Work, work, work,'” Sullivan said, noting that the phrase encapsulated what he saw are his gifts as an actor. “Showing up, being prepared. Being a workable instrument. Being moldable, having energy. Sometimes the days get really long, but once you get on the stage, it feeds you. You show up with vigor. You can’t do it with that laconic stuff.”
A desire to be in the spotlight, an effortless and slick charisma, abundance of ego – if Sullivan has these typical tools of the actor in his arsenal, they are well hidden under the other traits he brings to the stage.
“He is a workhorse,” said Lon Winston, the artistic director of Thunder River Theatre, who directs “The House of Blue Leaves.” “He never says no. He’s there for you in any way; he’s willing to help in any way he can. He’s very generous. That translates onstage to him listening, being thorough, taking direction well, listening to fellow actors. He doesn’t feel like he has all the answers.”
Last year at this time, Winston watched the process of putting together Thunder River Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” which Winston did not direct. The cast for the romantic comedy included Sullivan, and Winston, impressed by what he saw, believed Sullivan was ready for a huge role, as Stanley Kowalski, the bullying, enraged center of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“I found Lee to be really willing to listen. It led me to the willingness to cast him in the major role of Stanley,” Winston said, and added that Sullivan proved up to the character. “He wasn’t just connecting to Stanley, but the other actors and what was going on with them. That tells me he’s not up there for himself. It’s about everybody else, and his relationship to them. I heard from so many people that Stanley was the best thing they’d seen him do.”
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The first thing Sullivan did on stage was as a fifth grader in Tennessee, when he wrote a play, performed it himself, and earned positive reviews for his effort. “That was the seed,” the 49-year-old said. “That felt good – it felt good to sing and to write and to search for words.”
For much of his adult life, Sullivan put those pursuits mainly on the side. He pursued, instead, in another passion, for the outdoors and agriculture. He eventually became the ranch manager of a ranch in Old Snowmass, a job which suited him.
“It felt good to get my spirit and hands into something I could honestly trust. And that was nature,” he said. “Know where your ground and roots are, and know they’ll give back to you.”
A few years ago, Sullivan’s early love of theater began to come forward. To accommodate it, he switched career gears, trading in the ranch manager’s position for his own handyman business. He began to audition for, and land roles with Theatre Aspen, the Hudson Reed Ensemble, Aspen Community Theatre and the Aspen Fringe Festival, and also created smaller opportunities to get onstage: a 30-minute piece he did for the Aspen Historical Society, recreating the character of 1950s Aspen icon Freddie Fisher; doing a speech in the character of Eli Weisel for the local pregnancy center; and appearing in an opera with Symphony in the Valley.
A few years ago, Sullivan was cast as John Proctor, the lead role and tragic hero in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” in a Hudson Reed Ensemble production. It gave Sullivan a sense of self-importance – but he sees self-importance in terms of what it can do for the other actors.
“Once you do a lead role – there’s a lot of earth underneath a lead role. What everyone else, all the other characters, walk around on, is what he’s putting down,” he said. “Maybe acting has lent a better idea, a better appreciation of self-importance. Not egotism. In any pivotal moment in life, each of us can be a lead character.”
Sullivan shows great deference to the role of the playwright. “Most playwrights tend to create a high, level ground for the species to be elevated. A high level of what our existence is and what a hero is capable of and how we relate to each other,” he said. “And the cracks and crevices and why we self-destroy. It makes me aware of those things.
“Me, as an actor, I’m not defining the character, I’m coloring him. The writer has already defined him with words, and there’s a history of the character. I fill that character with a life and a breath. I think anyone can act – we’re all human beings.”
Winston says that Sullivan’s latest character, Artie in “The House of Blue Leaves,” is “a hugely difficult role.” Artie, a zookeeper with dreams of making it in Hollywood as a songwriter, is surrounded by various forces: a schizophrenic wife, a girlfriend who pushes his ambitions, an old friend who has had success as a musician, a son planning a major bombing.
“As a black comedy, you’ve got to find that balance between the comedy and the pathos. It’s not that open comedy where everything goes. You’ve got to find the pathos, or you’re laughing at the wrong thing,” Winston said.
For Sullivan, Artie allows him to be at the center of a swirl of characters and actors, situations and emotions. It is just where he likes to be.
“Playing Artie is refreshing,” Sullivan said. “It’s refreshing to be open to exhilaration and frustration and to be able to respond to all these forces. There are so many things going on in this play. But you need to be able to go into a show with a character who represents humanity.”
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